Drought in Rajasthan: Migrants live on fringes as exodus to southern, eastern regions leaves behind elderly

Sandeep Kumar Meel
The Rajasthan government has fixed the minimum wage at Rs 213 per day, but migrant labourers are often exploited and paid less than half the minimum wage.

Editor's Note: Rajasthan's relationship with summer is not a pleasant one. The shortage of water in the region only adds to the misery of the people. Even before the onset of summer, over 5,000 villages in nine districts in Rajasthan €" Barmer, Churu, Pali, Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jalore, Jodhpur, Hanumangarh and Nagaur were declared 'drought-affected' by the state government. The drought in this area affects the economy of the region as employment options dry up and people start migrating to neighbouring states like Gujarat to survive. This five-part series will examine the reasons and problems related to one of the worst drought conditions in the region. This is part three of the series.

Jaipur, Rajasthan: A tiny row of houses dot the arid landscape of Rakhi village in Barmer district of Rajasthan as the evening sun sets. Five years ago, the houses in the area were abuzz with activity. This would have been the time for women to gather around the well to draw water and chat about their day, the men for a round of hookah, and kids to fight over who won the last cricket match of the day.

Today, a formidable layer of dust envelops many abandoned houses. An eerie silence prevails even as a few odd residents, mostly the elderly, go about their daily activities. Seasonal migration has always been a part of life in this region: people would migrate to other states after the Kharif season would end €" around October €" and return during the rains in July. In recent years, the exodus has continued, but it is not seasonal anymore.

In the past five years, about 250 of 1,800 families left Rakhi village in Siwana block of the drought-hit Barmer district in search of livelihood, said Durgadas Singh, sarpanch of the village.

How drought is driving migration

Singh said that the drought-like situation in the past few years has not only depleted water resources in the region, but also income opportunities. "Drought has forced people to migrate from their villages not only in Barmer, but also in many other districts in west Rajasthan. They have locked their homes and moved to eastern plains of Rajasthan or other states like Haryana in search of livelihood. They leave with their families and livestock," said Singh. Nine districts in Rajasthan €" Hanumangarh, Churu, Bikaner, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Jalore, Barmer, Nagaur and Pali €" were declared drought-affected by the state government earlier this year.

According to estimates, 80 percent of the families €" of the 2 crore total population of west Rajasthan €" depend on agricultural produce and have been the worst-hit. Sanwalaram block development officer Siwana said scarcity of water and lack of fodder for livestock due to drought are driving migration in the region.

From drought to poverty

As drought-hit families move away from west Rajasthan, they move to southern and eastern regions of the state, giving a boost to the economy in these parts. Some choose to settle in Jaipur or Jodhpur to work as daily wage labourers in factories, said Kamlesh Sharma from the Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit working with migrant communities in India.

But working on a daily wage provides almost no relief to the families trying to escape drought, as they end up in poverty. The Rajasthan government has fixed the minimum wage at Rs 213 per day, but migrant labourers are often exploited and paid less than half the minimum wage.

Those who move farther away to Gujarat or Maharashtra fare slightly better as work at construction sites is abundant. It is also easy for their children to find employment at these sites, which seals the deal for most families. But they often reel under cash crunch. "Payment in construction sites here is monthly and not daily. So initially, cash is hard to come by," said Jagdish Kumar, a migrant from Ramaniya village in Barmer district.

From districts such as Churu and Bikaner, young men and even teens in increasing numbers are shifting to Haryana and Delhi to work as truck and tempo drivers. "I quit my studies to drive a truck in Haryana. I'm earning enough to support my family, but sometimes I have to drive 12 hours a day. That can be tough," said Radhe (name changed), now 18, migrated with his family from Barmer last year.

Asked if he has any regrets, Radhe shook his head and said, "What was left to do there anyway? Farming wasn't possible and our cattle were dying as there was no fodder."

Other districts which have seen an upwards trend in migration include Jallore, Barmer, Bikaner, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Pali and Nagaur. The migration numbers are particularly high among communities which depend on arts and folk performances for their income. Around 10,000 families have migrated from the region due to drought. "When people have to spend all their money on fodder and water, how will they bear the cost to put on performances?" asked Chamblal, a farmer from Ludrada village in Barmer.

Identity crisis

It is not just poverty that the immigrants have to cope with: many are battling an identity crisis. They remain deprived of their rights €" like voting €" as well as health schemes and insurance provided by the state government. Many can't even get get birth certificates for their infants. Living on the fringes of society has also left them vulnerable to exploitation by employers who often don't pay them the promised wage.

Struggles abound

If those who migrate find themselves under stress to make ends meet, those who chose to stay behind have their own struggles. Water from the wells is too salty to drink. Some villages do not have drinking water supply. Others have resorted to rainwater harvesting and are storing rainwater in tanks in their fields for use in times of crisis. But scanty rainfall in the past year have left tanks dry.

People have to resort to ordering water tankers from private companies, which at Rs 1,200 per vehicle (and lasts around 15 days) leaves a huge dent in their pockets. While the government is providing ration to families in the district, the initiative is riddled with glitches.

In many villages in Jallore and Barmer districts, each family gets only 5 kilos of wheat for a month. Many are unable to avail the scheme as the biometric machine fails to record their fingerprints for identification, an essential part of the process. "This is why many of those who try to stay back eventually leave. Relief will come only with rain," added Chamblal.

The author is Jaipur-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com

Also See: Drought in Rajasthan: Poor groundwater situation, erratic rains in Barmer indicate ecological distress across Thar desert

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